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Sunday, June 16, 2024 | Back issues
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Grieving Mother Sent |to Psych Ward May Sue

CHICAGO (CN) - Police and doctors may be liable for institutionalizing a grieving mother who said "If something happens to my son, I'll just die," after learning her son had been shot, a federal judge ruled.

In November 2009, Susan Dobrzeniecki's son Peter was shot in the face by an armed robber in Chicago Heights.

When the police told Susan about the shooting, she said: "I'm a good person. Why does this keep happening to me? If something happens to my son, I'll just die."

Dobrzeniecki, a Sauk Village employee, claimed Rebecca Vela-Salisbury, the village's acting chief of police, held a grudge against her ever since she criticized the department to a television news reporter in 2005. She said Vela-Salisbury acted upon that grudge when she went to visit her son at St. James Hospital.

Vela-Sailsbury and hospital security locked Dobrzeniecki in a room of the hospital, and Salisbury took her coat, purse and phone, according to the complaint. Then Vela-Salisbury had her involuntarily committed.

Dobrzeniecki was kept at the hospital for 14 hours against her will, where she was forced to strip naked, undergo a medical exam, provide a urine sample, and undergo a psychiatric evaluation. She insisted the entire time that she was not crazy.

Meanwhile, Vela-Salisbury used Susan's confiscated keys to enter her home without a warrant and search for a gun, according to her complaint. The police claim they only went to the home to check on Dobrzeniecki's now-deceased husband, Thomas, who suffered from multiple sclerosis and was wheelchair-bound.

U.S. District Judge James Holderman upheld Dobrzeniecki's claims against Vela-Salisbury for illegal search of her person and purse, as well as illegal entry into her home.

"Vela-Sailsbery argues that Susan's crying and statement that 'she wanted to die,' established reasonable grounds to believe that Susan would harm herself if she was not immediately hospitalized. The court does not agree," the judge said.

As an initial matter, Holderman ruled earlier that "such a statement, made by Susan in the immediate aftermath of learning [of her son's shooting], is very different from repeatedly saying that she wanted to die." (Emphasis in original.)

In addition, Vela-Sailsbery's alleged concern for grieving mother is also undermined by hat fact that she went to lunch in between hearing Dobrzeniecki's statement, and woman's commitment to St. James Hospital.

"Vela-Sailsbery erroneously described Susan as mentally retarded, erroneously described herself - rather than Susan's best friend who was also at St. James - as the 'spouse, parent, guardian, substitute decision-maker, close relative, or friend,' erroneously described Susan's statement in the parking lot of the administrative building, and omitted the fact that Susan had made the statement earlier in the day and immediately after hearing that Peter had been shot in the face," the 22-page opinion says.

Holderman found these allegations more than sufficient to sustain a claim against the acting chief of police.

The parties hotly dispute whether the officers conducted an illegal search when they used Dobrzeniecki's keys to search the home. The police claim Thomas gave consent, but also describe him as walking down the stairs to let them in, which he was physically incapable of doing. Dobrzeniecki claims that Thomas also suffered dementia at the time, and was unable to give knowing consent to a search.

Holderman says, "the Sauk Village defendants' stated reason for being at the house - to conduct a 'wellness check' - begs the question of why the officers would have discussed a search with Thomas in the first place."

Dobrzeniecki's other son, Tom Jr., also testified that the house was tossed and drawers were hanging open, evidence of a complete search of the home.

The judge found that Dobrzeniecki may also sue St. James Hospital, even if the doctor who treated her was a contractor, not a St. James employee.

"After St. James's staff placed Susan in the seclusion room, she relied on the apparent agency between St. James and Dr. [Heidi] Brown when she agreed to Dr. Brown's battery of 'invasive' tests. Susan had never met Dr. Brown before the day in question. The natural assumption at the time was that St. James, after placing Susan in seclusion, had sent one of its doctors to examine her," Holderman said.

However, while Dobrzeniecki may sue the hospital for negligent infliction of emotional distress, she cannot at the same time claim it was intentional.

Although a jury could find that "Dr. Brown's blind reliance on third-party statements" led to her wrongful seclusion, she does not allege any truly "extreme and outrageous" treatment.

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